by Nick Eden-Green
So the party conference season has come to an end, that time of year when Westminster politicians show how totally out of touch they are with reality.
Apart from the seismic shocks of whatever deal is reached on Brexit, we have the usual fatuous promises about building more houses.
This is coupled with an attack on local authorities, and planners in particular, for holding up development through the planning process.
There are hundreds of houses for sale in the Canterbury district right now. There are thousands of planning consents outstanding where not a brick has been laid.
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The problem is not a lack of houses but a lack of houses people can afford.
Building more won’t make them cheaper. No developer wants to build cheap houses. That would affect their profit line so they will trickle them on to the market to keep prices stable or rising.
Equally, few homeowners want their single biggest asset, their home, going down in value. Certainly nobody on a large mortgage could afford this as it would mean huge debt.
The government is asking for 300,000 houses a year to be built nationally. The Labour Party is asking for even more.
But developers only have the capacity for about 150,000. Any more would mean a shortage of bricks and bricklayers – we won’t be able to rely on east European labour any longer! So these are political promises that won’t be delivered.
So what can we do?
A land tax is one answer. It is sheer nonsense when agricultural land can become 100 or even 1,000 times more valuable immediately it gets planning consent for housing.
These huge profits must be taxed. This will either bring down the cost of housing land or the tax can be used to subsidise housing.
Only in this way will we be able to insist developers build genuinely affordable housing – social housing, council housing.
Our council no longer has an architects’ department or a public works department. But we could get developers to build council housing for us, at an affordable price, if a tax on land profits was introduced.
Then planners need to decide where houses are built. This they can do. Sadly, in Canterbury, the Local Plan relies on peppering our outer suburbs with a dozen or so major housing sites but little idea about how to deal with the traffic.
This is a major failing and it was, in the end, a political decision and not a planning one.
True, there will be some traffic infrastructure improvements – a fourth sliproad at Wincheap, a Sturry level crossing bypass and a new junction at Bridge.
But no joined up plans about what to do about the ring road or the feeder roads onto it which constitute our essential problem.
Canterbury district has about 68,000 houses. The plan is to build another 16,000.
More importantly, the city of Canterbury has about 20,000 houses and 11,000 more are planned on the eastern, southern and western sides of the city.
That’s more than a 50% increase with no strategic plans about what to do with the traffic.
Sadly, local politicians, both Conservative and Labour, failed to recognise that the only way to handle housing growth on this scale was to build one or more new Garden Cities in Kent, with all the appropriate infrastructure, to take the pressure off Canterbury, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells.
This is what I argued for and its why I spent hours at the Local Plan hearings putting the case to the planning inspector.
So don’t believe Westminster politicians when they say they will build more houses. Don’t believe complaints about local planners holding up development. And don’t believe most local politicians saying housing in our district is going to get any more affordable.
We had an opportunity for a radical plan which could have delivered genuinely affordable houses and appropriate infrastructure. We flunked it. But the Local Plan will be revisited. Let’s see if we can get it modified before it’s too late.
Nick Eden-Green, a former Lord Mayor, is the Liberal Democrat city councillor representing Wincheap and sits on Canterbury’s planning committee